Why Summer Learning Loss doesn’t have to be inevitable

As we approach the end of a hectic exam season, everyone has one eye on the finish line – the promise of the summer holidays. Both staff and students need the summer holidays to relax and recharge – however this six-week period away from the classroom can have an unintended impact on children when they return in September.

A traditional part of prepping for the autumn term is preparing ‘refresher’ lessons. This is down to Summer Learning Loss – a phenomenon that causes children to lose subject knowledge and understanding throughout the holidays.

For some students the impact might be relatively small, but for others it can be the equivalent of losing as much as two full months of learning in maths or English according to a report by the National Center on Afterschool and Summer Enrichment in the US.

The disproportionate impact of summer learning loss

As worrying as this is for schools already, even more concerning is the fact that academic research finds disadvantaged students are significantly more likely to lose knowledge over the summer, regardless of how well they were performing the previous term.

In my five years as Assistant Headteacher for Achievement at Harlington Upper School much of my focus has been on trying to solve problems like this, particularly when it comes to ensuring students from all backgrounds are given the same opportunities to succeed. And I’m proud to say that we have had some real success in making this happen, by cultivating a mentality we call ‘keep up, not catch up’.

However our previous initiatives have had the advantage of taking place during term-time, something that any summer learning loss project could not.

This posed a particular challenge for us. As a school we were clear on the impact Summer Learning Loss was having on students, and we were also aware of research showing just an hour or two of work per week over the summer holidays can have a significant impact. However staff wellbeing is a top-tier consideration for us too, so any new programme didn’t want to burden our teaching staff with additional summer workload.

Thinking outside the classroom

With this in mind, we chose to look outside the school for resources that could provide these educational ‘nudges’ to our disadvantaged (DA) students over the holidays. In Summer 2018, we ran our first summer tutoring project using the MyTutor platform, which provided all DA students the opportunity to access weekly online tutorials in maths, a priority subject for us.

For our pilot year we decided to go with a light touch approach, offering the tutorials on a voluntary sign-up basis for DA students. Ultimately, 15% of the students who were offered tutorials signed up and completed all six lessons included in the programme. The positive feedback from the project was particularly welcome, especially from parents, who are ultimately the bedrock of any successful summer programme. The fact that the tutorials were online was also a benefit, as all the work could be done from a kitchen table or bedroom.

Keep up, not catch up

One of my greatest sources of pride is how well we as a school have raised attainment among our disadvantaged students. In just five years we have moved from being in the bottom 10% of schools for performance among pupil premium students into our position today in the top 25%.

The summer tutoring project was the embodiment of this idea. We wanted our DA students to be given the support they needed to keep up, without forcing workload onto them or our staff. What we found is that all we needed to do was offer access to summer learning, and our motivated students would make the choice to use it.

Looking ahead to summer 2019, we are expanding our summer tutoring project to a wider group of students, to gain an even broader understanding of its impact. With increased uptake we’re hoping to see an even better outcome for September, and if it’s also able to kickstart a lifelong love of learning so much the better!

Garry Russon is an Assistant Headteacher (Achievement) at Harlington Upper School in Bedfordshire, a MyTutor partner school.

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